MAHOPAC, N.Y. - On a sunny afternoon in late June, 100 personal stories about racism printed on small pieces of paper were hung from twine that was strung across the periphery of Chamber Park in Mahopac. They told heartbreaking tales of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and transphobia that both current and former students said they experienced in the Mahopac School District.
The exhibit was part of a march and rally against racism, prompted by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police earlier this year.
“Going to school and sitting at my desk every day just to see swastikas, ‘rape Jews,’ ‘rape n-words,’ ‘kill Jews,’ and many other anti-Semitic and racist things,” one of the stories related.
“A boy in my global conflicts class continuously called Muslims ‘terrorists’ and ‘towel heads’. Every time we would talk about the Middle East, he would refer to them as ‘filthy Arabs.’ I’ve also been asked by others on different occasions if I’m a terrorist, if I’m related to Osama bin Laden, or if I’m in Al-Qaeda, just because I’m Muslim,” another story recounted.
The anonymous stories were shared with the community by Mahopac for Racial Justice as part of a call for the Mahopac School District to put an end to what some perceive as systemic racism within the schools—something they say has been plaguing the district for years.
A Shared Experience
“The more these students and alumni met together, the more they realized they had a commonality. They had similar experiences that they never really discussed,” said Daniel Ehrenpreis, a member of the group.
Mahopac for Racial Justice is made up of more than 30 current and former students from myriad backgrounds, and they hope by sharing their stories they can create change within the district.
“I’m tired of having people say things to me, discriminatory things, prejudiced things, and just have it not be recognized,” said Andrea Jenkins, a rising senior at Mahopac High School. “You complain to the teacher about it and the teacher does nothing or just says ‘oh, it’s a joke.’ It’s tiring to have people show that they don’t care about you.”
Kelly Creary, who is biracial, graduated from Mahopac High School in 2010 and is a member of the group. Creary recounts the struggles her family faced living in Mahopac and said she didn’t feel there was any place for them to turn to voice their concerns. She said one moment in particular has stuck with her. It happened on the school bus when she was in fourth grade and another student discovered she was biracial.
“His response was to call me the n-word and I didn’t know what that word meant, but I knew he wasn’t being nice,” Creary said.
She said she remembers that exact moment in detail—where she was sitting and what the boy’s face looked like when he said it.
“He knew that word, and he knew it was a word meant to hurt me,” she said. “I graduated in 2010 and it’s still going on.”
Creary’s sister, Carolyn, who graduated from Mahopac High School in 2005, described her experience being biracial as “an uncomfortable experience” but hid her anger and frustration. She contends the district silenced accusations of racism in the past.
“So many of these students don’t feel they could come forward and if they did, they were ignored,” Carolyn Creary said.
Angel Brons, who is also biracial, graduated from MHS in 2014. She said that when she came forward to teachers about incidents that occurred, teachers were “silent.”
“Just to put it very simply, there wasn’t a lot of reprimanding. I feel like there was just a lot of, ‘boys will be boys,’ or ‘kids will be kids,’” she said.
Mahopac for Racial Justice started gaining traction in the community when the 100 anonymous stories that were displayed in Chamber Park were shared on Instagram.
“[They were] just heartbreaking. I thought I had it bad,” Brons said of the stories.
Time for a Change
Renowned sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, a New York Times best-selling author of nine books, graduated from Mahopac High School in 1990 and recounted his experiences with racism and anti-Semitism in a recent video.
“The classmates scrawling ‘Jew, Jew, Jew’ across my yearbook,” Pearlman recalled. “My friend having two crosses burned on his front yard.”
Pearlman said in the video that he would like to think things have improved in Mahopac, but was moved by what Mahopac for Racial Justice shared on social media.
“I urge local, political, and academic leaders to take this moment of change [going on] in America to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they can do to turn Mahopac into a place that’s comfortable and inclusive for all,” Pearlman said. “2020 is a time of positive, societal change and Mahopac needs to join in.”
Mahopac for Racial Justice sent a letter to Mahopac Schools Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo and the Board of Education regarding racism within the district and community. In that letter, the group outlined a three-step action plan to address the injustices in the district, which includes 1. Retiring the Indian mascot, 2. Creating a committee on diversity and inclusion, and 3. Ensuring timely public response to condemn acts of hate.
Ehrenpreis believes the most important step is No. 2, creating a committee on diversity and inclusion because it would allow all voices to be heard in a safe environment.
“We want a multidisciplinary group that’s able to look at policy, that’s able to present solutions and actions, that’s able to discuss with community members in an open format about how we can absolutely encapsulate inclusion and diversity in a way that doesn’t just say ‘we have a policy for that,’” he said.
Marisa Caputo, a rising junior at MHS, said that often when a student of color told a teacher or administrator about an incident of racism, the student was pushed aside, and the issue was never addressed. However, Caputo noted that when there were other issues, such as vaping, “right away we saw changes made. We saw new implements made to stop that from occurring.”
“Yet, with racism, alumni have been saying this has been going on for decades and still we’re not seeing that urgency with our problems and that’s what makes me feel defeated at times,” Caputo said.
Kelly Creary said she believes the repercussions for racist actions within the district aren’t strong enough and argues that changes should have begun in 2014 when several Mahopac High School students were suspended for sending out racist tweets and comments during a Sectional semifinal basketball game against Mount Vernon basketball players.
In addition, in April 2019, players on the Mahopac JV lacrosse team were accused of using racial epithets directed at New Rochelle players during a game.
Tom McMahon, president of the Mahopac Teachers Association, said it is now time to correct those issues.
“In 2014, we started it, but we never finished it, and we never followed through,” he said. “In 2014, I don’t think that as a whole our district felt there was a problem. I felt they thought it was isolated to a small group.”
McMahon said this type of cultural change within the district will take years to correct, not months.
“Our job is to create a nourishing environment for students to learn and when you learn not every one of our students has had the same experience… it’s very disheartening,” he said.
District administrators say they started to examine and correct these issues before the Mahopac for Racial Justice movement emerged. In November 2019, they developed a Cultural Proficiency Task Force. Dr. Greg Stowell, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel and educational services, said the purpose of the task force was to produce a systemic change in Mahopac culture.
“We started to hear from some of our students about their experiences about equity and feeling marginalized and we started to develop a plan to address equity, cultural competency, and develop partnerships with local faith-based organizations,” Stowell said.
But some current and former students feel a Cultural Proficiency Task Force may not be the answer.
“What does it mean to be ‘proficient’ in someone’s culture? And better yet, how can you be proficient in something when your skin color is different from someone else?” asked Carolyn Creary, who has a background in psychiatric social work.
Some current and former students said the changes should focus on the courses that are offered and the way in which faculty and administrators handle instances of racism.
“I want to hear about the slaves that built this nation. I don’t want to hear about Christopher Columbus, and everything is great,” Brons said. “I want teachers and administrators to be more direct and have a hands-on approach when it comes to reprimanding students and addressing it first-hand rather than waiting.”
“I want to see teaching history the right way instead of favoring white superiority, and having open conversations, having those uncomfortable conversations that sometimes we don’t want to have,” Caputo added.
District officials say they are ready to redefine and reimagine their task force and their policies in order to fix the culture for students. They said they will look internally to address the issues and work with students and Mahopac for Racial Justice on achieving long-term systemic change within the district. However, Stowell notes that when these issues are brought to their attention, they are only allowed to use the tools available through New York State education law and board policy.
Superintendent DiCarlo said that he and his team have been in communication with Mahopac for Racial Justice and have plans to continue to work with the group and have listening sessions to hear their stories. But DiCarlo said he can’t address the anonymous stories posted on Instagram because his administration wasn’t in office at the time when many of them took place.
“That is not really fair to talk about certain things when we weren’t here to listen to that,” he said. “We weren’t a part of those discussions.”
DiCarlo acknowledged the importance of creating long-term change within the Mahopac culture, as well as educating teachers on how to report racial incidents. Stowell added it was important to squash microaggressions and racial slurs so that larger incidents of racism don’t occur.
“That falls between the cracks in our current policies and procedures and in the American education system and in the state laws,” Stowell said. “How does the school system confront a microaggression or a culturally insensitive comment? Again, it goes back to the work we need to do and looking at our policies, procedures and practices that we can fully address this.”
Michael Tromblee, assistant superintendent for curriculum/instruction of professional development, along with DiCarlo and Stowell, have started working with Mahopac for Racial Justice to examine its three-step action plan.
All three administrators agreed with the plan’s second and third action items, which call for a committee on diversity and inclusion and ensuring timely public response to condemn acts of hate.
“I think this is the work we need to do,” Stowell said.
DiCarlo said the school is working on putting an action plan together and they have already started to develop a strategic road map that will lead to “true change.” He said systemic change can take three to five years to achieve and doesn’t automatically happen.
Long-term plans for a more inclusive environment include holding “listening sessions,” reimagining the current Cultural Proficiency Task Force, continuing to meet with Mahopac for Racial Justice, and partnering with independent organizations to determine the root cause of the problem.
“[We] have started to interview with outside organizations because, quite frankly, as persons not of color, we can’t understand the experiences that our students of color have,” Stowell said. “So, we need an outside organization that is experienced with working with schools.”
DiCarlo said the district plans on presenting the Board of Education with its long-term plans within the next month.
Newly elected board president Mike Mongon said the board supports what DiCarlo and his team are doing. He said he likes the idea of an independent organization assisting the district.
“I put the utmost trust in our superintendent and assistant superintendents,” Mongon said.
Meanwhile, Mahopac for Racial Justice will continue its ongoing dialogue with the district.
“I think this is a critical opportunity for the administration and elected officials to look upon the policies they have created in the past and how they can better encompass inclusion policies and diversity policies,” Ehrenpreis said.
Mongon said he welcomes Mahopac for Racial Justice’s involvement.
“I’m really hoping the group keeps us moving and holds us accountable,” he said.